Why baseball is always dying.

Taking stock of people and ideas in the news.
March 12 2004 1:41 PM

Baseball

Why it's always dying.

Illustration by Keith Seidel

March 2 was a great day for baseball's apocalypse watchers. The San Francisco Chronicle reported that Barry Bonds' personal trainer gave steroids to the Giants slugger, Yankees Jason Giambi and Gary Sheffield, and three other major leaguers. "I hate it. I don't want to believe any of it. … But this steroid stuff is ruining everything," wrote Dan Shaughnessy in the Boston Globe. Congress threatened to impose a drug-testing policy from on high. Astros second baseman/village idiot Jeff Kent pondered whether Babe Ruth suffered from 'roid rage. Beware, the end is nigh!

Josh Levin Josh Levin

Josh Levin is Slate's executive editor.

Perhaps baseball's latest scandals will cancel each other out—if Giambi and Sheffield are forced off the juice, the Damn Yankees' satanically bloated roster looks a lot less formidable. But even if these scandals melt away over the summer, you can be sure that the game will be perched on death's door once again next year. Loving baseball is hating what it has become, then falling in love all over again. No other American sport or institution is caught in such a cycle of death and rebirth.

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For more than a century, baseball reigned as the unchallenged national pastime. That the game is still ritually mourned in the age of Monday Night Football and Allen Iverson is the best evidence it still matters. As Ken Burns would (comprehensively) tell you, the game's historical and cultural impact has been immense. Troops tossed the horsehide across enemy lines during the Civil War; Japanese soldiers cursed Babe Ruth to American GIs during World War II; Jackie Robinson's 1947 major league debut was a watershed moment for the sport and the nation.

All those years of cultural supremacy gave the grand old game a nice running start on screwing up. Countless evil forces, from the destruction of Ebbets Field to the high mound to artificial turf to free agency to interleague play to contraction, have threatened to wipe the scourge of baseball from the planet. And since baseball is the sepia-toned game of Little League, Field of Dreams, and a catch with dad, each time it happens, we weep that we're losing our national innocence all over again.

So, how does baseball manage to keep performing its Lazarus act? The courts save it, a charismatic player saves it, our willful ignorance saves it, an unquenchable need for our men in uniform saves it. The major leagues faced the guillotine during their formative years when, in 1914, the Federal League tried to go big-time. The upstart league's hefty paychecks wooed Hall of Famers like Chief Bender and Three Finger Brown from their American and National League franchises. Rather than pay the new market value for his players, Connie Mack dismantled his AL champion Philadelphia A's. The A's went directly from the World Series to a 43-109 record.

AL and NL owners fought back in the courtroom, repeatedly suing Federal League owners for prying away top talent. The FL countersued, arguing that the teams of organized baseball constituted a monopoly. The case landed before the reliably trust-busting Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis. This time, Landis let the majors keep their monopoly, and the debt-laden FL ultimately settled out of court in 1915. FL owners got $600,000, the major leagues absorbed two FL teams, and the FL disbanded. The lesson, as decreed by the Supreme Court a few years later: Baseball is no mere business, but a sacred trust.

With everything right in baseball land, Landis was rewarded for his judicial indecisiveness with his appointment as MLB's first commissioner. He presided over the game's next brush with death, the Black Sox scandal. Eight members of the Chicago White Sox, including lifetime .356 hitter Shoeless Joe Jackson, were banned from the game for conspiring to fix the 1919 World Series. As tear-soaked, floppy-hatted newsboys moaned "Say it ain't so, Joe," Babe Ruth blotted their eyes, reviving interest in the game with his offensive prowess. In 1920, Ruth walloped 54 home runs, a ridiculous 25 more than the record he had set the year prior. In 1921, the year the Black Sox went on trial, Ruth again broke the record with 59 long balls.

Though strikes and lockouts had become a matter of course by the 1970s, the 1994-1995 strike caused what none of baseball's other near-death experiences (at least those that took place after 1904) could manage: the cancellation of the World Series. It also inspired historic levels of venomous spew directed at the game's greedy players and owners. With squads of replacement players ready to trot out on Opening Day, angry fans and newspaper columnists vowed to boycott the game forever. The sides settled before any replacement games were played, and forever ended a few weeks later. Cal Ripken's proletarian pursuit of Lou Gehrig's consecutive-games streak offered a parallel force for good. Attendance still lagged behind pre-strike levels, though, and the public's imagination wasn't truly recaptured until the touchy-feely, andro-fueled McGwire-Sosa home-run chase of 1998.

Drug use is another reliable destroyer of sandlot innocence. Jim Bouton's 1970 book Ball Four, with its wild and wooly tales of clubhouse amphetamine use, shocked fans and Commissioner Bowie Kuhn. The so-called Pittsburgh cocaine trials in 1985 proved even seamier. As part of the case against Philadelphia Phillies caterer Curtis Strong, seven major leaguers admitted their coke habits in open court in exchange for immunity. Keith Hernandez estimated that up to 250 players snorted what he called "the devil on this earth"; Pittsburgh's mascot, the Pirate Parrot, was implicated for helping players acquire cocaine. The players who testified avoided suspension by tithing their salaries to antidrug charities. Commissioner Peter Ueberroth was generally lauded for cracking down on drugs. "I believe baseball is going to be the first sport to be free of drugs. The players have had enough of it," he said.

While baseball dies a new death every time it shows human frailty—money-grubbing, drug-taking, lying, cheating—moralizing partisans show their human sides too, perpetually forgiving America's prodigal game for its latest transgression. The columnists and fans who finally had their illusions crushed by this winter's scandal will be back in their seats by Opening Day, just in time to be crushed by the next one. Since there's no Babe Ruth—not even a Babe Ruth on steroids—to save the game this year, perhaps we should look to Steve Howe as our baseball totem. Howe is the former Dodgers and Yankees reliever who was suspended for drug use seven times before finally being banned for life in 1992. A few months later, he was reinstated. An arbitrator said the penalty was too harsh.

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